Young gun: Astros Wagner boosts struggling bullpenby Andrew J. Ferraro

Daily Cougar Staff

Two hours before game time, Billy Wagner can be found warming up on the floor of the Astrodome.

Because the giant stadium is mostly vacant and the absence of noise is almost haunting, the mitt of the catcher pops with authority.

Wagner, one of the newest additions to the Astros roster, is leading a reeling Houston bullpen back from the dead and is giving the starting pitchers and the coaches some relief.

The 5-foot-11-inch, 180-pound left-hander throws at 92 miles per hour and strikes out opponents with regularity.

In his most recent outing, Wagner relieved Houston starter Donne Wall and struck out seven of the 12 Los Angeles Dodgers batters he faced.

If he hadn't been replaced by Astros closer Todd Jones, Wgner could have picked up his second career save.

As a first round draft pick in the 1993 draft, Wagner was considered one of baseball's top prospects. He was rated by Baseball America as the top 1993 collegiate prospect, with the best velocity among draft-eligible prospects.

In his three-year collegiate career at Ferrum College in Virginia, Wagner set the single-season NCAA Division III-A mark for career strikeouts with 327. He also holds the single-season NCAA mark for fewest hits allowed at 1.58 per game.

The left-handed pitcher said that talent goes hand-in-hand with hard work and dedication to the game.

"It takes just a lot of desire and hard work," Wagner said. "You can't just say, `Today I want to be a better ball player,' and expect to get better. It's got to be an everyday thing."

Last season, Wagner made his major league debut with the Astros in a game against the New York Mets and retired the only batter he faced in a 10-5 defeat.

On June 2, after the release of Greg Swindell, Wagner was called up to boost the Astros bullpen and give it a spark that it has desperately needed all season.

In 14 innings of pitching, (as of Sunday), Wagner has struck out 23 batters, is holding opponents to a .103 batting average and has a team-leading ERA of 1.84.

"It's really great to be able to face these guys and strike them out," Wagner said. "I throw a good fastball, curveball and changeup, but what is going to keep me up here in the majors is being competitive and going after hitters. That'll be the key for me."

Wagner said that baseball is full of surprises and taking games one at a time is the key to the Astros winning the NL Central.

"We're just going to have to go out there and win every game," he said.

"Baseball is such a funny game and right now we're not having any luck."

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